Thursday November 26, 2009
Happy Birthday, Charles M. Schulz
Charles M. Schulz, who created some of the first fictional characters I ever cared about, was born on this day, November 26, 1922, in St. Paul, Minn. There's a good personal essay on the “Peanuts” universe by Jonathan Franzen in his book of essays “The Discomfort Zone,” which I read about five or 10 years ago in The New Yorker. You can read it here. At one point Franzen writes:
Schulz never stopped trying to be funny. Around 1970, though, he began to drift away from aggressive humor and into melancholy reverie. There came tedious meanderings in Snoopyland with the unhilarious bird Woodstock and the unamusing beagle Spike. Certain leaden devices, such as Marcie’s insistence on calling Peppermint Patty “sir,” were heavily recycled. By the late eighties, the strip had grown so quiet that younger friends of mine seemed baffled by my fandom. It didn’t help that later “Peanuts” anthologies loyally reprinted so many Spike and Marcie strips. The volumes that properly showcased Schulz’s genius, the three hardcover collections from the sixties, had gone out of print. There were a few critical appreciations, most notably by Umberto Eco, who argued for Schulz’s literary greatness in an essay written in the sixties and reprinted in the eighties (when Eco got famous). But the praise of a “low” genre by an old semiotic soldier in the culture wars couldn’t help carrying an odor of provocation.
All of which I agree with, particularly the Spike criticism; but even in his later years Schulz had his moments. This is one of them. In a series from 1988, Charlie Brown is outside the house of the little red-haired girl, hiding behind a tree and lost in his usual reverie. Then suddenly she comes outside:
When I first saw this I was living in Taiwan and dealing—with about as much courage and luck—with my own little red-haired girl, albeit the tall, brown-haired version. I identified, in other words. As a child I identified with Snoopy and as an adult with Charlie Brown. You can argue that Charlie Brown is the most adult character in the strip: he feeds Snoopy, takes care of Sally, organizes the little league team, sees the psychiatrist. Linus may be the philospher, the potential minister, but Charlie Brown is already the nervous, overworked parent.
I wound up cutting the strip out of the English-language newspaper in Taiwan and bringing it home with me seven months later. Ever since I've kept it in an old cigar box (PHILLIES BLUNT), along with autographs, old political buttons, my high school tassle. Stuff that's tough to throw away.
I recommend the Franzen book. I recommend The New Yorker. I recommend a song called “Charlie Brown” by Gavin Osborn:
It's all a lot of oysters and no pearls
But I recall the little red haired girl
How I used to sit on this bench in school
And stare at her across the playground
All I wanted was to sit next to her
Talk to her just be with her
That wasn't asking too much was it
But it never happened
Then she moved away
And I don't even know where she lives
Still got my lunchbox just in case
I even saved her a sandwich and a drink
Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Happy birthday, Sparky. Good work, Google, combining the two: